Friday, June 17, 2016

"In a pair of lacy pants": A Defense of Being the Mormon Cast Member in Cabaret

If you follow me on other forms of social media, you may have noticed that I'm in rehearsals for Cabaret with Utah Repertory Theatre. I'm in the ensemble, playing one of the Kit Kat Klub girls, who works in the nightclub in "a pair of lacy pants." (Incidentally, this is the one show I've done in the past several years that my dad and stepmom are able to come see. The one where I'm dancing in my underwear. I gave my dad fair warning, and he replied that he's not prudish, and truth be told, he knew me as a toddler, and has seen me dance in less than my underwear. Fair enough.)

You may be thinking, "But Liz! 'Cabaret' all sex and stuff! You're a True Believing Mormon! What are you doing dancing in your underwear?!"

I'm dancing in my underwear because I believe in the story that Cabaret tells, and I think it's important.

Here's my philosophy; the six main ideas behind my decision to do Cabaret.

Brigham Young once said, "Upon the stage of a theater can be represented in character, evil and its consequences, good and its happy results and rewards; the weakness and the follies of man, the magnanimity of virtue and the greatness of truth. The stage can be made to aid the pulpit in impressing upon the minds of a community an enlightened sense of a virtuous life, also a proper horror of the enormity of sin and a just dread of its consequences. The path of sin with its thorns and pitfalls, its gins and snares can be revealed, and how to shun it."

And I agree. But I don't think that limits valuable theatre to ONLY "The Testaments" and the Nauvoo Pageant. Mormons don't have a monopoly on truth and virtue. We can learn important lessons about how to be smart and kind humans from so many sources, including shows like Cabaret.

Therefore, actors are needed to play the parts that aren't always saintly. If the Bible was made into a stage play, SOMEONE would have to play Jezebel. You simply can't have good storytelling without including people making bad choices.

(And to be honest, I don't even know if my character's choices to work in a nightclub are all bad. I haven't decided yet.)

Sometimes there are just characters making choices, and you as the audience can evaluate if they're good or bad, or why they made them, or how you can live your life differently because of their example.

I just finished a play wherein I set things on fire with the intention of killing people. The play before that, I kissed two men who were NOT my husband. Those are both bad things in real life. Significantly worse things than dancing in my underwear, if we're being honest. But it's not REAL. I can't bring myself to believe I'll be held accountable for things I'm doing in character. There are a handful of things I don't think I will ever do onstage or on camera, but the majority of them have to do with whether or not I feel the work is valuable.

If you're uncomfortable with shows like Cabaret, I think that's okay. You have a right to abstain from the things that don't feed your soul. You also have a right to do so free from judgement. But that judgement needs to go both ways. Others have a right to participate in things you feel uncomfortable with. I, personally, don't feel uncomfortable with the content of Cabaret. I've thought and studied and yes, even prayed, about this decision for myself. I won't be offended if you don't agree with the content of the show, or feel uncomfortable, or don't want to see it. (I'm a little offended by the idea that you might think I'm a heathen for participating, because I feel it doesn't give me due credit, but that's my own issue.)

I haven't played a dance-heavy role since...2006? After several injuries in my early twenties, I shifted my focus away from dance and more towards acting and singing. I still enjoy dance, and I'm fairly decent at it. But this show will push me to re-awaken and strengthen skills that have laid semi-dormant for a decade. Skills that I know will make me a better performer. And it gives me an opportunity to explore and shape a character unlike any I've played before. I want my acting jobs to push me into new territory, to force me outside of my comfort zone just enough to help me grow.

When we had our first meeting as a cast this week, the director and several cast members talked about the deep need they (we) feel for this show right now. Because here's what Cabaret is actually about:
- It's about the dangers of nationalism, when it runs unchecked.
- It's about what happens when a leader shows up and promises to fix the problems of a lot of people who are underemployed, disenfranchised, and angry.
- It's about blaming an entire group of people for the problems of society.
- It's about a time and place in history when LGBT rights were being fought for, and sexuality and gender was being researched and honored, and the LGBT community was given a safe haven from bigotry, before a World War sent the entire movement underground again.
- It's about joining the crowd without trusting your own heart and conscience first.

Those are lessons we need now and always. As the granddaughter of German immigrants, as an LGBT ally, as a citizen of the United States, and yes, as a Latter-day Saint, I feel a duty to share these lessons. It really is okay if you feel uncomfortable about the context in which these lessons are shared. But for me, I'm grateful for the opportunity.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Thwarted Plans

Here's why yesterday was a bummer.

The first part of the day was just one of those dumb days when little things just keep going wrong. The store doesn't have the one thing you're looking for, you can't load the podcast you want to listen to, and you hit every single possible red light. One of those days.

But then, that night, I finally got around to opening my financial aid letter.

Wait. Lemme back up.

So, I'm getting my MFA in Writing right now, through an online program. I started in January, and made this plan: Take 9 credits per term in order to graduate by summer 2017. During this time, I work a few times a month for the U of U as a simulation patient, and pursue acting, all while working on my degree for a few hours per day. I'm eligible for enough financial aid to cover the cost of tuition and have a little left over to supplement my income, so that I can focus on acting and school.

Great plan, right?

So, I got my financial aid letter for the next school year, and apparently I am eligible for $12,000 LESS than what I was expecting. Starting in July.

Plan THWARTED. All kinds of thwarted.

Suddenly, I found myself in this terrible conundrum. Here were my options:

1. Keep taking 9 credits per semester, but get an additional job to make enough money to pay the bills. This would necessitate giving up acting for the year, because I don't have enough time to work as an actor, take 9 credits, AND work an additional hourly job.

2. Drop out of school altogether, get an additional job, and continue acting work.

3. Reduce my credit load to 6 credits per semester, meaning I'll graduate LATER, but which gives me enough financial aid to continue my current plan of working as an actor and my several other jobs.

After freaking out for about half an hour, I finally chose Option #3. My acting career is really important to me, and I didn't want to give it up. I also didn't want to drop out of school. I'm disappointed about taking longer to finish my degree, but ultimately, it's the option that allows me to pursue both my current goals and my future goals. It's the one that makes the most sense. But it's still a bummer. Because time. And because money.

It means that my budget is a little tighter than I had planned, so I REALLY need to get more paid acting work if I want to do anything except pay rent and utilities. Things like the orthodontist and new character shoes just have to stay on the wish list until and unless I get a paid gig.

Luckily, there are lots of those to be found around here.

(But, Liz? Doesn't Jacob have a job? He can support you both, can't he? Yes. He does have a job, and he could, theoretically, support us. But a few years ago, we decided to split our finances. Our shared monthly bills are split evenly, and anything else we do with our own earned money is up to us. This is the best solution for our marriage. I don't claim to believe that it's best for everyone, but it's DEFINITELY best for us. We do help each other out in emergencies. But I'd really like to hold up my end of the deal and pay for my share of things. Someday, our circumstances may change, and we may shift the way we do things. But for now, this is how it works, and I want to do my part.)

The final chapter to this mini-drama is a happy one, though. I posted that above-pictured Facebook status in the wee small hours of the morning last night (time makes sense?), feeling a little lost and trying to embrace my vulnerability. And I woke up this morning to this ENORMOUS outpouring of love and support, far more than I was asking or hoping for. I had private messages and memes galore to lift my heart, and lifted it was. I was humbled by the kindness that so many showed me. I feel incredibly blessed to be surrounded by so many large-hearted people. It makes disappointments far easier to bear. Thank you.

So here's to a longer MFA career with less money, with loving friends and family by my side! Onward.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Walmart stake out

I had a homework assignment last week to go to a public place and write what I was observing all around me in an unusual form. Inspired by my beloved X-Files, I did a stake out.

Note--At 9:38 pm, I was approached by a police officer and asked to move out of the handicapped parking spot. My explanation that I was doing a homework assignment did not impress him.

Observation Log
Saturday night, June 4, 2016
Orem, Utah Walmart
Stakeout location: a handicapped parking spot just north of the market entrance (where I am illegally parked).

9:03 pm
I am Dana Scully, sitting on watch duty, badge hidden, red hair framing my face. I’m looking for stories. I’m an emotional voyeur, watching the faces of the people walking in and out of the Walmart, waiting to see if their faces will tell their secrets. Trying to remain somewhat inconspicuous, laptop notwithstanding. Carts roll with a metallic rumble across the pavement, the white noise of the I-15 in the deep background. In the summery dusk, potted flowers wilt in front of the store entrance. It’s warm, in the upper 70s. My allergy pill is wearing off.

9:06 pm
Older couple. 50s or 60s. Both wearing striped shirts. His is white, hers is pink. A silver car rolls by, windows down, classical pop piano blaring. A guy in his twenties walks past my cracked window; he’s too thin, angular jaw and long brown hair. He’s got a goatee and he’s talking with concern to someone on a cell phone, one hand in his pocket.

9:09 pm
Students from Utah Valley University push each other around in one of the carts—the kind that has the plastic seats for kids. They’re laughing hysterically, and in my 30-year-old wisdom, I think fondly of the days when I could be obnoxious in public without feeling obnoxious. Sirens suddenly ring out from Sandhill Road behind me. A fire truck and two ambulances. Their alarms change in pitch as they get closer, closer, then farther, farther.

9:11 pm
Inside the lobby, vending machines stand side by side with two redbox kiosks and a “treasure shoppe,” one of those rigged arcade games where you use the claw to try and get a stuffed animal. Two kids—I imagine them siblings—stand side by side to try their luck. I wait to see if they’ll win, but of course they don’t. Growing up, I always begged for quarters whenever I saw one, and my parents never let me try. My mom finally gave in at a Denny’s when I was 11 or so, and with one swift, smooth movement, I gripped a white puppy and let it fall into the slot. My mom was astonished, but I don’t know why. I always knew I could do it.

9:14 pm
This is the second person I’ve seen walk out of the Walmart with a limp. I feel like an a**hole for taking a handicapped parking spot.

9:15 pm
Two boys in their late teens stand next to the potted plants. They chat, with false shows of bravado. One’s got mismatching socks. They take turns pulling out their phones and scrolling through. Displays of masculinity so absurd, they’ll crack into a thousand pieces if you bump up against them too hard.

9:17 pm
I hear a wolf whistle…once…twice. It’s not aimed at me, but I’m enraged by it anyway. I could give whoever whistled the benefit of the doubt (maybe they’re just signaling a friend), but these teenage boys by the potted plants have got me all caught up in toxic gender constructs.

9:19 pm
A flashing yellow light signals a line of carts being returned by machine to the overhang. I wish they’d had that machine when I worked at Walmart, walking through the parking lot with an itchy yellow vest, Idaho sun high above me. Age 19, working full-time with two other roommates. We’d get snowcones on our way home every day, then sit in the warm living room, discussing episodes of House.

9:21 pm
Spotted! Returned Mormon missionary! Modest khaki shorts, navy blue t-shirt with a compass on it, the words “Arise” written across it. Hair tidy and militarily short. Glasses. He’s carrying two bags, and I feel certain that if the doors weren’t automatic, he’d hold them open for you.

9:23 pm
In the few minutes I’ve looked down to type, I missed it—the moment that shifts between dusk and twilight. I wait to catch it every summer evening, but it always happens in the moment I blink, or look at my book, or get distracted.

9:24 pm
Orem, Utah is mostly white. Lower middle-class and blue-collar folks frequent the Walmart the most. People speak in that regional accent peculiar to the Rocky Mountains. (“Mou-ins.”) I hear an occasional phrase in Spanish, a sentence or two in Arabic that makes me glance up. Two brothers, each pushing a shopping cart, in what sounds to me like heated debate, but it could be the media informing my interpretations.

9:27 pm
A middle-aged woman in her Sunday best strolls by, holding an unopened game of Monopoly. I begin to make up a story about her. Her college-aged children are in town, and she ran out at the last minute to pick up a game to play, to keep everyone awake and together at the kitchen table. Or maybe she’s teaching Sunday School tomorrow, and she’ll use the fake money as an object lesson. Or maybe she’s found some craft on Pinterest, and she’ll spray paint each of the pieces and glue them to a frame.

9:37 pm
My allergies are getting the better of me. I’ll wander into the store myself now, make my way to the pharmacy. One package of Allegra D. One of the white, lower-class Mormons in Orem, Utah.